I recently read a quote that came across a feed in one of my social media sites that read, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” As a speech-language pathologist I truly believe this statement and have seen it to be true both with my own children and in my clinical practice. Language has the phenomenal power to unlock access to knowledge through academic learning and books, to allow creation and imagination to flourish through play and art, as well as to build and nurture the bonds of friendship with another person. Regardless of the topic (art, science, math, music, technology, friendship, etc.) the stronger a person’s language skills are, the better they are at accessing information from the world around them and providing their own great contribution in return.
Helping children to have a wide and rich vocabulary is one of the most important things we can do as parents to ensure they develop strong language skills. In the post I wrote prior to this one entitled Vocabulary in The Early Years: Facts and Myths All Parents Should Know I describe why vocabulary learning is so important in the early years and how a child’s early language abilities are related to long-term academic and social success even into adulthood.
So since the previous post outlined the “why” vocabulary development is important, in this post I wanted to follow up with the “how to” portion. Specifically how parents can easily help build a child’s vocabulary starting today. I stress the word easily because I wanted this post to be a little different from what I am seeing out there on the Internet already. There are lots of creative ideas on social media sites of what to do at home to develop a child’s language skills but I find most activity suggestions require lots of prep or setting aside some special time in the day. Although I like (and have used) several of these suggestions, I wanted this post to be for the parents who are not Pinterest-savvy and are busy with jobs, chores and other children. I wanted people to understand you do not need to have a specialized degree in speech-language pathology or in early childhood education to help your child develop strong language sills. All you need is interest, motivation and a few tips from the pros!
Before you read on I would like to highlight some key points for you to keep in mind:
- All you need is a child’s interest and you have a teachable language learning moment. Since young children are interested in so many things (as indicated by many parents losing the battle of trying to keep their house tidy, while their children explore everything they can get their little hands into!) you do not need to spend lots of time creating more activities for them to do.
- Young children learn most of their language through the back-and-forth interactions they have with their parents during daily routines so capitalizing on what you are already doing together is the easiest way to build language learning into your day – no special time needed.
- There is more to helping a child develop a strong vocabulary then just talking and reading to them so you will need to pick up a few new habits.
These tips are literally for EVERYBODY! Whether you have a young toddler or child about to start school, once you are done reading you will have the tools you need to start to bring vocabulary learning to life with your child today.
1) Talk with intention
I have found there is a belief amongst parents that if they simply talk a lot to their children they will develop good vocabulary skills. This is a bit of a half-truth. Talking to your child is definitely good for their language and vocabulary development, but the quality of the talking makes a big difference too.
Talking with intention means being mindful of what you are saying to your child as you talk. It is more than just having a conversation with your child as you play or interact together during daily routines. It is about engaging with your child with the intention of teaching something new; in this case word meanings.
In regards to vocabulary, children of all ages benefit from having adults make word meanings clear. For infants and young toddlers this means using gestures, such as pointing to an object while you are talking to help them easily put a meaning to the new word they have just heard you say. For older toddlers and early preschoolers this means providing simple explanations of word meanings while you are interacting with them as they explore their world. For older preschoolers this means talking more abstractly about word meanings and helping them draw on their own knowledge of other words or past experiences to help them learn the meaning of the new word and integrate it into their expanding vocabulary. No matter what the age, the point is clarifying word meanings, in an age appropriate way, done intentionally by an adult, will have a positive impact on vocabulary development.
Next time you interact with your child, no matter what the setting, try and talk with intention. Choose 1 or 2 words you don’t think your child knows that you can easily incorporate into what you are doing with your child at that moment (e.g., faucet at bath time or wrinkle while putting on clothes). As you are talking with your child use the word, but also make the meaning clear for them with some of the suggestions provided above. Remember to keep the conversation natural and playful to keep your child interested in talking to you about this new word.
If you are having trouble getting started or thinking of words try this free word list for babies and toddlers or join the Big Word Club for preschool children where a new vocabulary word is emailed to you daily.
2) Repeat, repeat, repeat
The question of how often children need to hear words before they are integrated into their vocabulary is still debated by researchers. There is the notion that some young toddlers only need to hear a word one time to learn it, while other studies have shown children need to hear a word over 24 times before they learn it. Although the specific number is unclear, the idea that children need to hear words repeated frequently for them to be learned is well documented and recommended by speech and language professionals around the globe.
At this point I will share a story with you. I was coaching a parent during a language intervention session on how to use repetition during a play interaction to encourage word use. Her toddler son and I were playing with bubbles and I kept saying the word “pop” over and over as I popped the bubbles. He was very happy and we were having a great time then she said to me “Don’t take this personally, but its like you think he is stupid”. I was completely blown away. Here was her son, having a wonderful time, blissfully unaware that he was participating in a language boosting routine (that I had done many times with my own children who did not have language delays) but her perspective on what she was seeing was not the same as mine. I explained to her that this was definitely not the case and we reviewed why repetitions were important for children, especially those with language delays, but it was a hard habit for her to get into during her typical interactions with her son. Thankfully, this parent trusted my expertise and worked hard to incorporate this new way of talking with her son (who did say “pop” at the very next session and many more words after that), however the experience taught me that although I am very comfortable repeating words over and over again for children, this may not be the case for other adults.
I will leave you with this final thought regarding repetition. Although young children have such an amazing capacity to learn language, please don’t doubt that this is a very difficult task. During even the simplest interactions you have with your child their brains are actively working to learn words, grammar and how they go together to communicate. The more experience you can give them with words and word meanings, the stronger their language will be.
3) Set up reminders in your daily routine
I can appreciate that vocabulary development may not be the first thing the typical parent thinks about each day. Life can get pretty hectic with young children and trying to remember to highlight word meanings for your child may get forgotten (like showering did for me when my children were quite young – eek!). However, vocabulary development is extremely important because it is one of the best predictors of reading and academic success so it really does need to hit a parent’s daily priorities.
So how do you make sure to pay attention to vocabulary AND do all the other things you need to do? Set up your visual reminder! Something you can put up in your environment at home so when you see it, it jogs your memory to do a certain thing. I am a big visual reminder person. At any given time you will find notes I’ve created, left in strategic places around the house, to remind me to do something. I have used visual reminders with many families and I have found this technique to be very successful in starting new habits!
The first thing you need to do is download the word tracker sheet for free here. This piece of paper will remind you to make vocabulary learning a priority each time you look at it. Next choose a place to put it. Somewhere you can easily see it, where it won’t get wrecked and in a place you can readily start to apply the new skill. Popular places are in the kitchen, on the playroom wall or in a child’s room as a reminder before story time. Record the new words you have talked about with your child as reminder of the success you have already had and a way to offer clues on what may be good words to talk about next.
4) Use technology
Technology has come a long way and more and more speech and language professionals are incorporating tech into their practices. Let me be clear right from the start, children learn best through back-and-forth, multi-sensory interactions so providing a young child with an app or letting them watch “educational” tv is NOT the way to help them develop vocabulary skills.
There are, however, some great apps that help support language development by doing some of the thinking for you. My favourite is called Vroom. This app offers countless suggestions for simple ways to support language development at home either in the routines you already do with your child, as well as offering suggestions for extra activities to do together when you have the time. The app let’s you track your progress by marking off activities you have done, saving your child’s favourites and setting up reminders throughout the day to help you remember to do more. Best of all, it’s FREE! I highly recommend this wonderful app for any busy parent of children under the age of 5!
So now you are all set to go! Supporting a child’s vocabulary development may take practice at first but as you watch your child’s language skills flourish you will both reap the rewards now and for many years to come.
Wishing you and your loved ones happy language learning together 🙂
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